In Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" our two principal characters, the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) stand transfixed in a heartbreaking moment in time; a wall and two worlds separate two hopelessly in-love people while the diegetic sounds of the aptly named Desire's "Under Your Spell" thumps its hypnotic beat into the hearts of audiences. It is a moment of love and longing so expertly shot and painfully beautiful, that the heartbreak is clearly felt as Irene returns to her family and Driver returns to his lonely task of fixing a car part, before departing his Spartan apartment for places unknown. There are many adjectives worthy of bestowing upon "Drive" including sleek, gritty, intense, and horrific, but it is beautiful that fits this strange and complex film best and only a visionary such as Refn and gifted performer as Gosling see "Drive" to its logical equally beautiful conclusion, in the process ushering in the second coming of the "cool hero," a commodity that hasn't graced the big screen since the heyday of the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen
Anyone familiar with James Sallis' original novel will find "Drive" even more of a revelation thanks to Hossein Amini's brilliant, stripped down screenplay that turned relatively average thriller into something magic and meaningful. We don't get any real back-story for Driver in the film, aside from his brief meeting with mentor Shannon (Bryan Cranston), instead Refn brings us into Driver's world as a silent observer, allowing Gosling himself to bring the character to reality aided by our hero's "costume," a white satin jacket emblazoned with a bold scorpion on the back. We are never given a chance to question Driver's legitimacy as cool, calm, and collected, because just as begins to talk the proverbial talk, the action is on and his walk is as effortless and fluid. Then infatuation or love, depending on how you look at it enters the picture and Driver and "Drive" take a turn for uncertain grounds.
As Driver becomes an important part in Irene and Benecio's (Irene's young son) world as they become important parts of his life, the audience is given the sense that the thrill sought moonlighting as a getaway driver are no longer a necessary component in Driver's life, and maybe, just maybe being a mechanic and stuntman are enough, as long as Irene and Benecio are there. Yet, love is complicated and strange and painful, and all three come with the return of Irene's well-meaning husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), a reformed ex-con who is violently pulled back in for the genre staple "one more job" and because Driver's love for Standard's suffering family is so great, he's willing to offer his own services. If the rollercoaster ride of emotions Refn takes viewers on were not enough, all hell breaks loose in "Drive's" second half, but that in no way diminishes the almost dreamlike atmosphere that Newton Thomas Sigel's cinematography brings to life.
Consciously or not Gosling's performance as the mostly silent, stoic Driver instantly recalls memories of Steve McQueen, from the relaxed but assertive posture, but mostly the eyes, an acting style few have mastered and the few who do cement their status as forces of nature. On his own, Gosling is captivating to watch in "Drive" never having to say a single word of how he feels, leaving his faces and most importantly his eyes to tell the story; from a steely unbroken gaze after calmly telling a rowdy patron to "shut your mouth or I'll kick your teeth down your throat and shut it for you," to blind rage in a late in the movie act of unspeakable violence washed away with a near childlike look of regret and hopelessness, Gosling is the lynchpin in why "Drive" is not just a great film, but a modern masterpiece and frankly, while no one will ever replace McQueen himself, Gosling is more than a worthy successor in a time where audiences need a "cool hero" to watch in awe.
If all these elements weren't enough, Refn pulls off one final miracle, bringing in Albert Brooks as shady producer Bernie Rose a figure from Shannon's past as well as Bernie's associate Nino (Ron Perlman) a Jewish gangster who owns a pizza parlor. Brooks is as effortless as Gosling in an initially thankless role that like the film at large reveals deeper layers on repeat viewings. Brooks and Refn are two calculated artists who waste nothing in the film, even if at first glance an action, line, or artistic choice seems inconsequential. At the end of the day though, through the heart stopping action sequences, brief spurts of unforgettable violence, and deconstruction of the "cool hero," "Drive" is a love story as everything done is done for love: Driver's love for Irene and Benecio and Refn's love for filmmaking.
If it weren't for a just slightly too deep level of contrast, the 2.40:1 1080p transfer would be reference quality. The image is rich with detail in every shot, no matter how deep the frame is itself. Colors are lovingly reproduced and cover a wide spectrum, highlighting Newton Thomas Siegel's carefully crafted compositions. There's not an ounce of digital tinkering found and only a few shots shows visible digital noise/grain.
The English Dolby DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is a tad too intense on the low-end of the sound spectrum, with the bass rich score sometimes a tad too powerful. That aside, like the visual component, the aural experience of "Drive" is rich and fulfilling, with expertly balanced dialogue (this can be an almost hauntingly quiet movie in its first act) and great atmospheric use of the surrounds; the action set pieces are truly incredible and the great sound work properly reproduced here amps up the tension another factor. English, Spanish, and English SDH subtitles are included.
Sadly, the four featurettes that make up half of "Drive's" bonus features are largely promotional and for fans of the book, one is entirely useless. They include "I Drive: The Driver" a focus on Gosling's nameless character, " Under the Hood: Story" on basic production, "Drive and Irene: The Relationship" focusing on Gosling and Mulligan, and "Cut to the Chase: Stunts" a look at the great and crucial stunt work.
"Drive Without a Driver" is much more interesting and covers a lot more substance than the featurettes. It gets director Refn on-camera to discuss all aspects of the film. There's some great insight and makes one long for a commentary track which hopefully appears on the special edition re-release that Refn has alluded to coming later this year. Lastly, a code for an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film is included in the case
A practically technically flawless presentation, the Blu-Ray release of "Drive" was a commentary track away from earning my highest recommendation. However, paltry extras aside, the film itself stands on its own, rewarding viewers who give it multiple spins an extra layer of depth to the story, but most importantly the characters, specifically Drive and Bernie. "Drive" is a masterpiece, plain and simple, and Refn has crafted a film that is easily accessible, beautiful, and thrilling, and in the process, given Ryan Gosling free reign to rightfully earn the title of not just actor, but bon-a-fide star (although I'd have argued he already earned this with previous efforts). Highly Recommended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: If like me, you despised the horribly designed official cover for this Blu-Ray release, Signalnoise and Mysterybox offers up an alternative, printable cover, found here. It's a fine piece of art itself.